This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
If you would like to tell the editors about a new book (even your own) that addresses the concerns of HNN -- current events and history -- or would like to write a review, please send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luther Spoehr is an HNN book editor and senior lecturer at Brown University.
For readers still digesting Richard White’s remarkable (and remarkably long and controversial) Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012), Dennis Drabelle’s The Great American Railroad War can serve as an appealing dessert. Those still thinking about reading White’s book will find The Great American Railroad War a stimulating appetizer.
Drabelle, who has already written a history of the Comstock Lode, returns to the old neighborhood and sets the stage for his main story by retelling the familiar tale of how the Big Four (Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P. Huntington) pushed, pulled, bribed, and hornswoggled their way to fortune by pushing the Central Pacific eastward to meet the Union Pacific. “For all its hocus-pocus,” Drabelle admits, “the Central Pacific did not stoop to some of the Union Pacific’s most egregious tactics, such as adding needless curves to pad the number of subsidized miles covered or laying tracks over uncleared ice and snow (with the predictable result that one of its trains slid off the tracks, flipped over, and landed upside down in a ditch).” But the group—particularly Huntington—used plenty of dubious tricks of their own (such as burning potentially incriminating ledgers), not least of which was how they proposed to avoid paying back the $75 million debt due to the government in 1896. In a sentence that exemplifies Drabelle’s fluid, precise, informal style, he summarizes their position: Huntington “could live with federal legislation that would bundle the debts into a single loan, repayable at, say, 2 or 3 percent interest over a period of, oh, how about 75 years?”
Having set the scene with 80 vivid narrative pages, Drabelle reaches the heart of his book: the muckraking articles written by Ambrose Bierce, author, satirist, and journalist, that drew the public’s attention to the “rail rogues’” shady operation; and the sprawling novel, The Octopus, that Frank Norris wrote with much the same purpose in mind. Underwritten by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, Bierce tore into the scheme in a series of 60 articles, written in his characteristic biting style. In those days, says Drabelle, “words didn’t just ring out—they pinched, gouged, slapped, kicked, and pulled hair.” And nobody made them do all those things better than Bierce. Now remembered primarily for his Devil’s Dictionary (“CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”), Bierce relentlessly spotlighted the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific’s machinations--past, present, and planned for the future. Drabelle devotes about 100 pages to Bierce’s evisceration of the scheme, and even though the summaries sometimes go on for too long, any stretch of 100 pages that can quote Bierce again and again (“Corporation, n. an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility”) is worthwhile.
Then Frank Norris, the well-to-do young author who aspired to be the “American Zola,” joins the story. As Drabelle says, Norris’s “urge to paint on a broad canvas couldn’t have been further removed from Bierce’s miniaturist leanings.” Norris was a naturalist, whose characters were caught up in forces beyond their control or even understanding. Intended as part of a trilogy, The Octopus, by its title alone (taken from a famous cartoon of the time), captures the overweening reach and power of the Big Four’s creature. Says Drabelle: “The Octopus belongs in the select company of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: novels that have exerted a profound influence on American politics.”
Just how successful Bierce and Norris were depends, I suppose, on how one defines “success.” They helped to create and then rode a progressive wave of reform, although both died too soon (Norris, very young, in 1902; Bierce in 1913) to see how things ultimately turned out. Drabelle argues that “we can see the result of the Southern Pacific’s suborning of lawmakers and regulators in the mess that is California’s politics today….Big money…still has California over a barrel, just as it did in the Gilded Age.” And California, now as before, may point the way for the rest of the country: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Drabelle says, “the political climate is such that the United States is in danger of being dragged back into the era of the robber barons.”
Whether or not you agree fully with Drabelle (and he doesn’t pound the pulpit very often about contemporary implications), you will be engaged by his book. Energetic, even sprightly, in its political, economic, and literary presentations, The Great American Railroad War will make you laugh while it makes you think. Can’t ask a book to do more than that.
Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (Tennessee).
Wars are frequently glamourized in American popular thought, but none more than World War II. This “Good War,” fought by “The Greatest Generation,” has much to commend it to Americans. It provided unusually villainous enemies, a regenerated U.S. economy, and the satisfaction of total victory on the battlefield. It was even accompanied by some remarkably progressive public policies -- taxes on excess corporate profits, the bolstering of workers’ rights to collective bargaining, executive action against racial and religious discrimination, and the encouragement of women’s entry into the paid workforce. Of course, there were some less appealing aspects of World War II as well -- not only the Nazi concentration camps that sent millions to their doom, but the slaughter of more than 60 million people (including over 400,000 U.S. soldiers), the internment of some 110,000 residents of the United States (mostly U.S. citizens) whose only “crime” was their Japanese ancestry, and the targeting of civilian populations for aerial bombardment, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the beginning of the postwar nuclear arms race. Overall, however, Americans have come away with a rather positive impression of this most destructive war in human history.
Historians, whose business it is to provide the truth about the past, tend to present a more nuanced picture of the Second World War. Although their practice of historical objectivity opens them up at times to denunciations from self-professed “patriots,” especially the loud-mouthed political frothers on television and in politics who wrap themselves in the flag, it is both more accurate and, ultimately, a lot more interesting.
A case in point is The United States and the Second World War, a collection of eleven scholarly articles on key aspects of the war, written by historians and edited by Professors G. Kurt Piehler (Florida State University) and Sidney Pash (Fayetteville State University). Well-argued and heavily-researched, these historical studies do, as the book’s subtitle promises, present us with “new perspectives” on a conflict that continues to be well worth studying.
J. Garry Clifford and Robert H. Ferrell highlight President Franklin Roosevelt’s remarkable caution and procrastination when it came to confronting the issue of convoying merchant ships across the Atlantic in 1941. By contrast, scrutinizing the emerging Pacific War of the 1930s, Pash emphasizes that U.S. containment policy toward Japan was rather consistent and successful -- at least until 1941, when U.S. officials adopted a considerably harder line, leading the Japanese government to conclude that it had no alternative to war. For his part, Justin Hart partially rehabilitates the reputation and significance of the oft-derided Office of War Information, while Ann Pfau reminds us of a deep-seated anxiety brought on by the war: the fear, on the home front and abroad, that American women would not remain sexually faithful to their boyfriends and husbands in the armed forces.
Some of the points made in these articles will surprise many Americans. Nicholas Molnar, for example, provides powerful evidence that the allegedly war-winning Sherman tank was actually a death trap for its hapless crews, at least when pitted against the technologically superior German Panther tank. Similarly, Barbara Brooks Tomlin reveals that, despite the vast potential power of naval gunfire support at Normandy, it was not very effective, especially at Omaha Beach, where U.S. invasion forces were cut down en masse by the well-entrenched German defenders. Probably the least known of this book’s many revelations is the important part that American pacifists played in the war. As Scott Bennett shows, many thousands of America’s wartime conscientious objectors played heroic roles not only overseas as combat medics, but at home fighting forest fires, working as aides in mental hospitals, voluntarily undergoing dangerous medical experiments to help develop new vaccines, and challenging racial segregation.
Other articles, though less dramatic, tell important, often neglected stories. Piehler notes the beginning of attempts to record the history of war as related by the soldiers themselves. Mark Snell recounts the role of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Normandy invasion. Looking at the wartime recommendations of nongovernmental foreign policy experts from Allied nations, Yutaka Sasaki underscores the sharp differences among them over postwar policy toward Japan. Finally, Rieko Asai explores the changing content of post-1945 Hiroshima Day ceremonies.
This rich anthology was compiled to honor John Chambers, the distinguished Rutgers University historian, and all of the contributors were either students or colleagues of his. A prolific scholar, Chambers is highly-regarded for his writing on both war and peace issues. His many works include To Raise an Army (for which he received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History) and The Oxford Companion to American Military History. In addition, he is a former president of the Conference on Peace Research in History (now the Peace History Society), an affiliate of the American Historical Association.
Like Chambers and the writers featured in this book, good historians have much to tell us about war and peace. If we pay more attention to their writings and less to the political rant featured in the mass media, we can learn a great deal.
Murray Polner is a regular HNN book reviewer.
The My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968, is symbol of the moral morass of the Vietnam War. Elderly men, women, and children, were slaughtered by rampaging U.S. soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division. The intrepid Seymour Hersh first broke the story for the Dispatch News Service, hardly a major news network. Though My Lai has since become synonomous with Vietnam War-era atrocities, it by no means the only murder of civilians in that brutal war; the South Koreans and both the North and South Vietnamese were especially brutal.
If anything positive emerged it was that a few American soldiers dared to denounce the assassins and their military and civilian defenders. One of them in William Thomas Allison’s first-rate My Lai is Captain Aubrey Daniel, an army lawyer who successfully prosecuted Lieutenant William Calley, the only participant in the massacre convicted. Daniel became enraged when President Nixon released Calley from prison pending his appeal. In a letter to the president written in April 1970, Daniel charged that by such an act the president had damaged the military’s judicial process and helped boost the image of Calley “as a national hero,” thus lending credibility to millions who believed the murders were inevitable if not justified during wartime. Sickened, Daniels’s letter continued: “How shocking it is if so many people across the nation have failed to see the moral issue which was involved in the trial of Lieutenant Calley -- that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women, children and babies.”
Many pro-war Americans saw Calley as the scapegoat in a frustrating war supposedly against communism’s expansion into Southeast Asia and even beyond. “The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley” sold 200,000 copies in three days.
With this in mind Daniel lectured Nixon in a tone rarely heard publicly: “I would expect that the president of the U.S., a man who I believed should and would provide the moral leadership for this nation, would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue about which there can be no compromise.” This, of course, was before it became patently ridiculous to include “moral leadership” and Richard Nixon in the same sentence.
Allison, a professor of history at Georgia Southern University and author of Military Justice in Vietnam: The Rule of Law in an American War has written a succinct and impressive summation of what happened on March 16, 1968 and after. He doesn’t offer much that’s new but the book is nonetheless replete with facts, insights and perspective that should make it required reading in high schools and colleges, where knowledge of what happened in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the '60s and '70s is barely known.
Allison, whose father was a Vietnam vet, considers some of the 58,282 U.S. troops killed in the war: “A draftee was two times more likely to be killed in Vietnam than an enlistee.” Meanwhile, “the burden of service largely fell upon young working-class Americans, African Americans in particular, who could not afford to enroll in college or otherwise get a deferment.” Unstated was that, according to the Congressional Quarterly years ago, only fourteen members of Congress had close family members in the military during the war. The same was true of fathers in the executive and judicial branches. Nor for that matter did the draft prevent or shorten the war. No wonder that Allison opens the book with a pithy and relevant quote from Sophocles: “War loves to seek its victims in the young.”
Relying in part on army and congressional testimony, Allison’s judgment is that My Lai’s “sheer brutality ... staggers the imagination.” The book is enhanced by gripping photographs of the massacre taken by army photographer Ron Haeberle. One of them depicts women and children terrified while the killing proceeds and other shows the dead.  Informed that the Vietnamese villages of My Lai and neighboring Son My were a hotbed of embedded Viet Cong the carnage led to shootings, torture, mutilations, rape and sodomy. Re-reading about the wanton savagery cannot but remind a reader, even if on a far lesser scale, of SS death squads roaming the Ukrainian countryside and murdering any and all Jews they could find.
Along with Aubrey Daniel there were other authentic heroes serving in Vietnam. Warrant Office Hugh Thompson was flying overhead in his helicopter. When he and crew chief SP4 Glen Andreotta and gunner SP4 Larry Colburn witnessed the slaughter he landed his chopper, climbed out and, spotting a group of troops getting ready to kill even more, told Andreotta (who was killed in action three weeks later) and Colburn to start firing if any of them shot at him or the villagers. By his astonishing act he rescued eleven Vietnamese and possibly saved countless others when he threatened to shoot more Americans still menacing villagers. Allison’s description of the butchery and the bravery of Thompson and his crew members’ roles are riveting. Another helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Brian Livingston, who helped Thompson evacuate the refugees, wrote his wife, “I tell you something it sure makes me wonder why we are here.” (See, too, Trent Angers’ biography The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story).
Yet another genuine hero was Ron Ridenhour, also a Vietnam vet, who had heard about the story from eyewitnesses. Once he found their stories to be true he wrote dozens of letters in March 1969 to Washington politicians that “something dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March, 1968 in a village called Pinkville” -- the name used by American forces -- and called for an investigation. He ended up quoting Churchill: "A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”
There were extensive behind-the-scenes efforts to cover up what had happened at My Lai, and in Vietnam generally. “Within the halls of the Pentagon, and even in the White House, some wanted to whitewash any damming evidence.” . Certainly, General William Westmoreland’s decision to rely on overwhelming American destructive power never succeeded. Nor did the White House’s reliance on extensive bombing succeed in bringing Hanoi to its knees. What it did was obliterate Laos’ Plain of Jars and wreak havoc on Laos, which was on the receiving end of some 2.1 million tons of bombs “more than the total tonnage dropped by the U.S. in the European and Pacific theaters in WWII” according to Oxford's Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon, still stuck in the mentality of World War II, was at a loss coping with a nationalist guerilla force. Allison complains that Westmoreland, who backed search-and-destroy and body counts, was “ever willing to take credit and protect his reputation at the expense of others.” But, after the disclosures about My Lai, Westmoreland insisted on a full inquiry and threatened to appeal personally to President Nixon to allow the investigation to continue hindered.  In the end, Allison notes, My Lai “further tarnished Westmoreland’s much-coveted reputation” just as it did the Pentagon and the Nixon White House, none of whose prime movers were ever held accountable.
All the same, it was Westmoreland, Major General Kenneth Hodgson and Colonel William V. Wilson and a few others inside the officer corps who supported a full-scale investigation. And, to his credit, it was Westmoreland who appointed Lieutentant General William Peers, who had entered the army via the ROTC at UCLA, to lead the inquiry, for which he was probably denied a fourth star because of his truthful findings. When his friend and protector Westmoreland retired, Peers did the same. And once Calley was convicted and soon released, My Lai soon became a relic of the past.
W. F. Burke is a freelance book reviewer
H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, has followed his magisterial work on Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Traitor to His Class (2008) with an equally majestic The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.
The first hundred pages of Brands's book covers the life of "Ulys" from childhood days in Ohio to his days clerking in his father's store in Galena, Illinois, where Grant, age thirty-eight, returned to the army after the outbreak of the Civil War. Over the subsequent 300 pages Brands offers a stirring recapitulation of the Civil War, told with such aplomb that the next chapter in Grant's life -- the presidency -- could not be other than anti-climactic.
As a general, Grant's dogged determination was an asset; as president his doggedness sometimes became a liability. By refusing to let go of certain issues or compromise when he believed himself in the right, Grant alienated many whose help was necessary to his effectiveness as legislator. Wishing to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870 -- believing it the best interest of the country to do so -- Grant refused to let the issue drop after annexation was defeated by Congress. ”A cannier politician,” Brands writes, “would have accepted defeat and moved on,” but Grant, showing “the same stubbornness that had carried him to victory at Vicksburg … remarshaled his forces,” and continued to beat, to no one’s benefit, what was essentially a dead horse. Not that Grant was an ineffective legislator -- his two presidential administrations were solid and competent if not spectacular. Grant's moral strength and aura of indomitability, made his voice one the nation listened to -- if not always heed -- but, as Brands points out, Grant's second administration was a time of national depression, and that plus the graft of some of Grant's appointees created a bad odor.
Though undeniably of great character and that rarest of all birds, an honest politician, Grant seemed blind to the avarice of his associates. Grant was repeatedly taken advantage of by the duplicitous throughout his life. Was Grant deliberately naive? Profoundly innocent? Both? Grant was "astonished," Brands writes, at learning that his private secretary, secretary of war, secretary of the Navy, ambassador to England, and his own brother Orvil had all handsomely profited by betraying the public trust.
Brother Orvil was not the only Grant whose actions were inimical to Ulysses. Grant's son, Buck, introduced Grant to the swindler whose chicanery left Grant, on the verge of old age, broke and in debt. Grant's father Jesse was so indiscreet with information that Grant had to order his father to keep quiet. A deeper look by Brands into the relationship between Ulysses and his father would have been beneficial. Jesse was of a prickly character, and seems not to have approved -- or to have lost approval -- of his mild-mannered son. The old man refused Grant a loan when Grant was struggling as a farmer, and, later, gave Grant a job in the family business only because Ulysses' younger brother Simpson had contracted consumption and become less fit for work. The parental disapproval (or was it parsimony?) caused Grant some unnecessary suffering in his personal life.
As victorious general, Grant was a hero of the nation; but was he also "the man who saved the union"? What of Lincoln? Lincoln's untimely death precluded his "saving" the union. Lincoln gave his last breath in defense of the union, leaving others, like Grant, to save what the war had wrought. By sending federal soldiers to defend the freedmen and women and southern Republicans, Grant, as president, insured the union would not revert to antebellum days and that gains made through civil war -- the emancipation of slaves, foremost -- would not be completely lost in the aftermath. By upholding the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, Grant ensured that those amendments became more than ideals. That those ideals -- of justice and equality -- became watered-down as years passed was none of Grant's doing, but of men less honest, less forthright, less of stature, than the savior of the union.
Brands’ book will surely take place beside other sterling accounts of Grant’s life, such as William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography (2002) and Jean Edward Smith’s Grant (2001). Yet, despite Brands’s work, and the nearly 150 other previous biographies of Grant, the country’s eighteenth president remains, and will probably always remain, something of an enigma due, in part, not to his singularity but to his ordinariness. An American everyman cast by fate into an exalted position he neither sought nor seemed to want, Grant held the line and the fort, even when the edifice seemed to be crumbling. The many contradictions in his character -- an indifferent soldier who became general-in-chief; an abject failure in civilian life who became president; and honest man whose administration was infamous for graft; a man of few words who wrote an acclaimed and masterful memoir -- only add to the fascination he has engendered as a flawed but genuine hero of the nation.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, will be published by Oxford University Press in January. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
With the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States is (again) riding a wave of popularity. HarperOne, a religious imprint in the larger HarperCollins (and thus Fox) empire, is riding that wave by reissuing this 1973 chestnut by Elton Trueblood (1900-94), a Quaker theologian who held a series of academic posts that included chaplaincies at Harvard and Stanford. It's a shrewd move, and a welcome one. Lessons in Spiritual Leadership, which consists of a half-dozen essays and a new introduction by Gustav Niehbuhr, covers ground that will be familiar to Lincoln specialists. But that is in large measure because Trueblood's analysis has proven prescient.
Trueblood notes what many observers of the Great Emancipator's inner life have considered a conundrum: "Being neither a church member nor antichurch, Lincoln's behavior was often perplexing to both the orthodox and the heretical. While one group was shocked to find him so pious, the other was surprised to find him unimpressed by ecclesiastical rules and practices." But Trueblood finds no paradox here. He notes that only 23 percent of the U.S. population called themselves church members in 1860; if Americans were religious, they weren't necessarily doctrinal. Indeed, he argues that by the end of his presidency, Lincoln's loose denominational affiliation (he paid dues at a Presbyterian church) actually gave him more credibility among clergy who admired his ecumenicalism.
Nor does Trueblood put much stock in Lincoln's former law partner William Herndon's dismissals of Lincoln's religiosity, because even if an accurate description of his early life (an assertion many subsequent observers have considered dubious, though rumors of infidelity dogged Lincoln in adulthood, most famously in his 1846 congressional campaign against Methodist minister Peter Cartwright), Trueblood believes Lincoln took a decisive turn toward faith in the White House. That faith rested on a foundation of deep familiarity with the Bible, documented here with multiple references to how Lincoln's language cited, evoked, alluded or playfully rewrote scripture.
In the last two decades, a number of important scholars -- Garry Wills, Allen Guelzo, and Ronald White, among others -- have all traced a deeply spiritual vein in Lincoln's political vision, much of it rooted in the hard-shell Calvinist currents in his Baptist childhood. (Trueblood believes Quakers in particular were a particular source of succor and influence.) What's perhaps distinctive to Trueblood's analysis is his assertion that the summer of 1862 was the crucible of Lincoln's religious life, the turning point in his personal development and as a result the turning point in conduct of the war. Lincoln, Trueblood believes, concluded that it was God's will that he be an instrument in a larger design of freedom. What's crucial about this sense of mission, however, is how strikingly self-effacing it was: Lincoln saw his job not to do what was right, but to seek what God thought was right, an epistemological modesty notable for the way it fostered compassion and generosity toward others.
Considered more broadly in the context of Civil War historiography, Trueblood's work anticipated what has become a widespread tendency to see Antietam, not Gettysburg, as the true turning point in the Civil War. Antietam gave Lincoln a political basis to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a political masterstroke that allowed the Union to endure subsequent military setbacks. If there is anywhere Lincoln or anyone since could say it with confidence, here was a moment, the words of Lincoln's famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union, that right made might.
Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).
Can fiction enhance our understanding of the past? In his latest novel, Edward Wilson -- a U.S. Special Forces officer in the Vietnam War who subsequently became an expatriate, a British citizen, and a teacher in the UK -- does help to illuminate the Cold War crisis of the early 1960s.
The Midnight Swimmer, a combination of spy novel and thriller, follows the activities of William Catesby, a fictional British intelligence operative, through some very real developments. These include the 1960 Soviet missile explosion that killed Marshall Mitrofin Nedelin, the election of John F. Kennedy, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the growing paranoia of James Angleton (the top CIA counterintelligence official), the mafia’s keen interest in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and, above all, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Like John le Carré, with whom he has sometimes been compared, Wilson provides a dark view of the Cold War. Here, to use Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, “ignorant armies clash by night” and, at the least, nothing is ever what it seems. For most Americans, steeped in comforting patriotic nostalgia, The Midnight Swimmer will be deeply disconcerting. Although Wilson never glorifies the Soviet Union, he does provide vignettes revealing a boyish, charming Ché Guevara, a remarkably polite Fidel Castro, and a very sympathetic, peace-oriented KGB general. By contrast, the U.S. government is depicted as reckless and, thus, in a time of nuclear confrontation, very dangerous.
At one point, Wilson has Catesby ruminate on the idea that what “made the Cold War so dangerous was that the Russians were playing chess and the Americans poker. The Russians deployed an elaborate defense with layers of deceit to protect their vital squares. The Americans responded with upping antes, calling bluffs and flexing muscles.”
Wilson’s account is particularly striking because he portrays most British officials (including Prime Minister Harold MacMillan) as sharing Catesby’s bleak view of U.S. officials. Many, in fact, seem not at all fond of their American “cousins.” Nor are the Americans shown as fond of them. The “cousins,” for example, twice try to assassinate Catesby. In turn, Catesby and his boss cold-bloodedly murder a CIA official.
Wilson has Catesby think: “The most interesting aspect of international relations wasn’t the conflict between enemies, but the conflicts between allies. You only had to go to an embassy cocktail party to see these conflicts in the flesh. It was easier for Western diplos to talk to the Russians than to talk to each other.”
Even more remarkable is the fact that Catesby, although loyal to the British government, develops a warm relationship with the KGB general and a hot one with that Soviet officer’s Russian wife. But this is not at all contradictory, for the British and the Russians are shown as devoted to the survival of their countries. By contrast, when it comes to the Americans, there is some doubt. Only late in Kennedy’s presidency -- and particularly with the maturing vision of Robert Kennedy – are the Americans shown as turning toward peace. And, as a result, Wilson implies, more hawkish forces snuff them out.
Although Wilson states clearly that The Midnight Swimmer is a work of fiction, he has drawn upon a broad range of historical sources to ground it in reality. These sources are listed in the book’s bibliography. Furthermore, the evidence gathered by historians since the 1960s bolsters key pillars of his account. The British government did worry that U.S. Cold War hawkishness would lead to Britain’s nuclear annihilation. The U.S. government did go to extraordinary lengths to topple Cuba’s revolutionary regime. The CIA did sometimes behave like a rogue state, whether on its own or because of orders from the top. The world did come much closer to nuclear war in October 1962 than leaders of the Cold War antagonists wanted or even recognized at the time. The Cuban missile crisis was not resolved by a tough U.S. stand but, rather, by U.S. concessions. The Kennedy brothers, with experience, did become more dovish and, at the end of their lives, considerably more willing to challenge Cold War constraints. Indeed, many historians have recognized that, particularly after Stalin’s death, real possibilities emerged for a resolution of the U.S.-Soviet global confrontation. It is one of the great tragedies of modern history that -- in Vietnam and elsewhere during the Cold War -- so many lives were lost or otherwise destroyed through superfluous violence.
Even if one rejects the broad interpretive framework of The Midnight Swimmer, it stands on its own as an excellent spy novel -- one that is fast-paced and capable of keeping the reader guessing. It belongs on the bookshelf alongside similarly unsettling works by le Carré, Alan Furst, and Eric Ambler.
Murray Polner is a History News Network book review editor.
In 1950, a scant five years after the end of World War II the United States entered into yet another of its interminable wars by sending its military to fight in Korea, a war which lasted from 1950 through 1953, though the Korean War era officially ended in January 31, 1955. This so-called “Forgotten War” cost the lives of 36,940 Americans, with 92,134 wounded, many grievously, and 8,176 missing in action (that's not to mention the over two million Koreans who died on either side). The GIs returned home without victory parades. A conservative veterans organization, Melinda L. Pash writes in her new book, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War, at first turned its back on them. They were, critics charged, “soft on communism and morally weaker that the veterans of other wars,” as Pash writes, quoting Paul Edwards’ 2000 book To Acknowledge a War: The Korean War in American Memory. Other detractors insisted they were the first American army to lose a war. Thirteen POWs were later charged with collaborating with their captors and twenty-one refused repatriation. Writers like Eugene Kinkead in The New Yorker, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Betty Friedan and others wrote that Korean POWs were morally and educationally weaker than previous POWs, lacking the backbone to deal with their Chinese captors. Even “coddling mothers” were blamed. Few of the explanations advanced, however, made much sense and few if any asked why so savage a war was ever fought in the first place.
In all, there were 6.8 million Korean War-era veterans, but only 1,789,000 served in Korea according to Pash (quoting Tom Heuertz’s “The Korean War +50”) A disproportionate number of casualties were conscripts. Several million or so Koreans, military and civilian, died and North Korean cities were leveled by U.S. bombers.
After the initial invasion by North Korea, the conflict became a more-or-less American war since the Republic of Korea forces broke early on. The Americans initially fought with too many untrained soldiers, many from hastily recruited units in the States and others from undemanding posts in occupied Japan, where they served in support roles. “Many men,” Pash writes in her notes, “stationed in Japan and subsequently sent to Korea at one time had been classified ‘limited service’ for mental or physical reasons and sent to places like Japan after being moved to ‘general duty.’ Many of these became psychiatric casualties only after a few days of combat in Korea.”
American civilians with no family members in the war or in danger of being drafted remained largely unaffected. S.L.A. Marshall, the military historian, called it “the century’s nastiest little war” and General Omar Bradley famously denigrated it as “the wrong war at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.”
Melinda L. Pash teaches history at Fayetteville Technical Community College and she tells an overlooked, gripping, and often heartbreaking and extensively documented story of the men and women who served. She recounts stories by those who were involved, what they encountered in combat, how non-whites and nurses coped, the harsh fate of POWs, and finally their return home, almost anonymously, without celebratory parades.
While Pash slights historical perspective -- for example, why Truman and his advisors felt it absolutely necessary to go to war and the implications it created for the future -- In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation is thoroughly convincing given our historic addiction to war and the ever-present possibility that future generations will surely be forced to fight many more wars.
Korea had been ruled brutally from 1910-1945 by Japan and its Korean collaborators, among them Syngman Rhee, who was installed by the U.S. as Korea’s president following Japan’s defeat in World War II. At the same time, after the division of Korea at the 38th parallel, the Soviet Union placed Kim Il Sung in power in North Korea. From the start the partition between the two Koreas was a marriage made in hell. Rhee, who would oppose the truce ending the war in 1953, began counter-insurgency warfare against his opponents, especially in the rebellious South Cholia region where his forces killed tens of thousands. In North Korea, the dictatorial Kim Il Sung, who fought the Japanese in Manchuria, was no less brutal to his real and imagined rivals. For several years, a civil war of sorts raged between north and south. Meanwhile, the Communists had come to power in China in 1949, and the Malayans and Vietnamese were battling British and French colonialists, the latter two backed by the U.S. Even more ominously, the Cold War between the two great nuclear powers was gaining momentum.
On June 25, 1950 North Korean armies, with Soviet approval, crossed into South Korea. David Halberstam’s vivid history of the war, The Coldest Winter, says Stalin approved Kim’s request to attack the south but cruel cynic that he was, told him that, if he ran into trouble, the Soviet Union would not help, though he surely hoped to keep the U.S. bogged down in war. When the North Koreans attacked, Truman, desperate to ward off Republican attacks for being insufficiently tough on communism and plagued by Joe McCarthy and his followers, allowed himself -- against the wishes of some of his advisors -- to be drawn into reading a longstanding civil war as an attack on our Asian friends as well as our nation’s very survival.
He forged ahead without a congressional declaration of war, establishing an unhealthy precedent for future presidents. The UN, still dominated by the U.S., endorsed the war -- the Soviets having foolishly boycotted the Security Council the day of the vote—and British, Canadian, and Turkish troops, among others, joined in. It then became a limited “police action,” the prevailing fiction designed to keep the Soviet Union and China far away. That is, until General Douglas MacArthur had his troops march north to the Yalu River, the demarcation line between China and Korea, an advance the Chinese viewed as a direct threat. In November, 300,000 Chinese “volunteers” poured in to fight the Americans and their allies and thus extended the war for another few years, resulting in an American military defeat disguised as a stalemate and also the famous dismissal of the general by the president.
“No strong, organized draft protest ever developed during the Korean War,” Pash writes. Other than a few pacifists like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League, all pitifully few in number, Pash believes that World War II and the onset of yet another paralyzing Red Scare in the late '40s and early '50s rendered Americans more conformist -- at least until their more skeptical children and grandchildren came of age in the '60s.
In addition to the poorly trained men initially sent into battle, many soldiers had no idea why they were there despite attempts by the military to inculcate them during basic training. “In the end,” writes Pash, “men continued to filter into Korea throughout the war with almost no information on why they had been sent.” Told that they were fighting to save South Korea from North Korean and Chinese communists and to keep America safe was sufficient for many soldiers interested only in staying alive. In any event, all soldiers and Marines, whatever their motives, had to follow orders or else.
There is an especially perceptive segment on the travails of black and other non-white troops. Despite Truman’s order ending segregation in the military, blacks were targeted in Korea, where they “drew the worst assignments and found little redress despite complaints.” More blacks were sent into combat than whites, she writes, citing a VA study. A great many in the all-black 24th Division, led by white officers, were court-martialed, some sentenced to death for alleged cowardice, a case which brought Thurgood Marshall to Japan and Korea to defend them.
MacArthur’s headquarters had signs supporting racial segregation and, according to Marshall, “the ‘great man’ did absolutely nothing to clean up his command.” She reports that “Hispanics had the highest rate of [combat] exposure.” The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry suffered over five hundred casualties yet several hundred were imprisoned for disobedience, ninety-five court-martialed and ninety-one judged guilty. Forty years later the Army declared there had been “bias in the prosecution.”
In any event, Americans rallied around the flag as they always do when wars begin. The libertarian editor Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr. has written about that “mysterious thing called nationalism, which makes an ideological religion of the nation’s wars.” Even so, as the war dragged on, as pointless wars often do, many Americans began objecting to the war and hailed Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower when he finally chose to end it. But others, like the China Lobby and hawkish generals, politicians and media, were furious that the U.S. had not fought an all-out war against China and A-bombed some Chinese cities a la Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When MacArthur returned home after his firing and was promoted as a possible Republican presidential candidate, vast crowds cheered him when he toured the country and later delivered his “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech before a hushed and reverent Congress. He soon faded when it became clear that other than encouraging a war with China and dropping another nuclear bomb he had little to offer the nation.
But ordinary GIs and junior officers did. Neither angels nor heroes, the vast majority were faithful Americans for whom the war became the high point of their lives. Many returned home with illnesses and wounds from “amputated limbs, shrapnel buried in their tissues, lost eyesight, diminished hearing, paralysis.” They developed TB, parasites and malaria. And many probably came home with what we now call PTSD.
In the end, then, the real question will always remain: Was the war worth it? And if it was, for whom?
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of “The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs.”
Oliver Stone has gained international fame for films such as Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, JFK and W. exposing the underside of American politics and life. The Academy Award-winning director has now produced a history of the “American century” with historian Peter Kuznick, that challenges triumphalist narratives rendering “Americans incapable of understanding the way much of the rest of the world looks at the United States,” and “unable to act effectively to change the world for the better.”
Engagingly written and with a sharp eye for detail, The Untold History of the United States begins by discussing the coercive practices employed by the United States to secure colonial domination in Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Expansion was driven by business interests such as the United Fruit Company, which gobbled up 1.9 million acres of land in Cuba for the cultivation of sugar. During the 1910s and '20s, the United States intervened repeatedly in Latin America to uphold its strategic interests, supporting many corrupt and autocratic rulers such as Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. U.S. General Smedley Butler lamented that he was losing so many men in Nicaragua all because “Brown Brothers have some money down here.” He later characterized himself as a “racketeer for gangster capitalism... who helped in the raping of a half-dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”
The 1934 Nye Commission hearings, led by Senator Gerald P. Nye (D-ND), exposed the influence of arms manufacturers and banking interests in driving the country into World War I and in profiting from the carnage. Unfortunately, the antiwar sentiment stoked by the committee came at the wrong time, as it shaped FDR’s misguided neutrality policy during the Spanish Civil War and appeasement of Hitler. The lessons of the Nye committee were more applicable after World War II, when the growth of the military-industrial complex and obsessive anticommunism led to catastrophic wars in Korea and Vietnam.
While World War II is conventionally considered the “good war,” the authors emphasize the immorality of a bombing strategy that targeted civilian populations and the central role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler’s armies. They might have expanded their critique by examining how the U.S. drive for empire in the Asia-Pacific and quest for strategic minerals was threatened by the expansion of Japan’s colonial empire on the eve of Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific War. Rather than being of military necessity, the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is correctly shown to have been undertaken largely to scare the Russians and to ensure the preservation of an American sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific after the war. The railroading of Vice President Henry A.Wallace by party bosses in favor of Harry S. Truman at the 1944 Democratic Party convention was another turning point in the origins of the Cold War. A visionary who helped farmers to withstand the perils of the depression as agricultural secretary, Wallace had advocated peaceful coexistence with the Russians and for a new century of the common man where “no nation will have the right to exploit other nations.” He is one of the heroes of The Untold History who fought for world peace and to extend the benefits of the New Deal. He paid a steep political price for challenging financial and political elites and was smeared by red-baiters while mounting a third-party campaign that galvanized progressives in 1948. This campaign marked the beginning of the dark days of McCarthyism and the conservative political shift in America that has endured through the present.
After Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952, U.S. foreign policy was led by the Dulles brothers, who had deep ties to the corporate sector and promoted a messianic anti-communism that resulted in the growth of the military industrial complex and launching of CIA coups against democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Iran. The Kennedy administration promoted a more progressive course, according to the authors, after Kennedy helped to avert catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy became skeptical towards the military establishment following the Bay of Pigs debacle and might have de-escalated from Vietnam. In this claim, the authors are on shaky ground, as Kennedy was an ardent cold warrior who expanded the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and sponsored counterinsurgency operations worldwide, including through the USAID’s Office of Public Safety which Kennedy founded. In Indonesia, the authors claim that Kennedy’s policy represented a break from Eisenhower’s efforts to overthrow socialist Achmed Sukarno who wanted greater control over mineral resources. However, Kennedy expanded the budget for clandestine police training to $10 million per year and built up the police mobile brigade as a counterweight to the army, which was considered to be “infiltrated by pinks and reds.” When Robert Kennedy visited Indonesia, he first made contact with General Suharto who orchestrated the 1965 coup and mass genocide supported by the CIA.
Kennedy’s domestic policy was hardly progressive, as Bruce Miroff detailed in his book Pragmatic Illusions, which is absent in the footnotes. Miroff shows how Kennedy was a prototypical “corporate liberal” who extolled the virtues of free enterprise and adopted a cool response to Senator George McGovern’s proposal to reopen the question of inequality with the American public. Kennedy’s economic policy focused on pushing for a trade expansion act over calls for a medicare bill and set tax privileges for corporate investors in place. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara boosted ties with defense contractors, whose revenues increased from $6 billion in 1960 to $15 billion in 1965. As historian Edwin E. Moise points out in “JFK and the Myth of Withdrawal” Kennedy allocated the huge sum of $55.4 billion to the military in FY 1964 before his assassination. Thus, to present Kennedy as a progressive in the mold of Henry Wallace is in my view a historical misrepresentation, even if far-right wing elements and the CIA colluded in his assassination (as Stone hypothesizes in JFK). George McGovern, who campaigned for the presidency in 1972 under the slogan “come home America,” was a more worthy heir of the Wallace tradition. With regards to Lyndon B. Johnson, the authors might have drawn more on Robert Caro’s biography and its exposure of Johnson’s ties with the military contractor Brown & Root who bankrolled his rise to power and profited from base-building contracts in Vietnam and also built the notorious “Tiger Cages” in Con Son where ‘Vietcong’ prisoners were tortured.
To its credit, The Untold History adeptly chronicles the devastating humanitarian costs of the Vietnam War and its expansion into Laos and Cambodia and has an excellent section on the abuses of power of the Nixon administration as well as its détente policy. The book goes on to effectively chart the growth of the neoconservative movement in the Vietnam War’s aftermath, provides a thoughtful analysis of Jimmy Carter and his links to the elitist Trilateral Commission and demonstrates the lack of intellectual acumen of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who were unfit for office. The authors also chronicle how neocon intellectuals helped to subvert nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and deceived the public in their push for war with Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. The Reagan administration’s support for death squads in Central America provided a preview of the murderous violence promoted by chicken-hawks (most had gotten draft deferments in the Vietnam era) during the War on Terror. After his election victory in 2008, Barrack Obama took over management of a “wounded empire” and failed to hold Bush administration officials accountable for their crimes, while escalating the Af-Pak war and robotic drone strikes that have killed many innocents. Supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, Kuznick and Stone emphasize that Obama’s regressive policies in both foreign and domestic policy were a product of his reliance on large corporations for campaign financing and also leadership failings. It is only through pressure from below that real change might be achieved.
Stone’s star-power will undoubtedly ensure a wide audience for The Untold History of the United States and help to popularize its critical interpretation. Apart from a few questionable judgments (the chapter on Kennedy stands out for me), the book is factually grounded, deeply-researched and sound in its analysis. Conservative attacks on the book have largely rehashed the spurious reasoning of McCarthyites, claiming for example that Henry Wallace was a dupe of communists when this was not the case. Celebratory depictions of post-World War II American history are increasingly untenable given the evidence that has emerged from declassified documents surrounding the wide-scale interference by the United States in Third World countries, the voracious drive for access to mineral resources and oil, and U.S. support for murderous dictators and death squad regimes. New research on the U.S. in Vietnam, furthermore, has revealed a systematic record of atrocities that is even worse than many antiwar critics in the 1960s believed, while the Iraq War and Arab Spring has confirmed the folly of trying to advance democracy through force. The growth of widescale social inequalities and environmental degradation has also exposed the bankruptcy of unfettered free market capitalism, with millions of people around the world recognizing the need for fundamental change. The time is on the whole ripe for Americans to begin to confront the dark side of their past, and to draw the appropriate lessons from history as a new age of transformation and reform dawns upon us. The Untold History serves as a valuable resource in the fulfillment of these ends.